Before I express how the project has been making me feel, I want to give a brief update to provide the appropriate context. On Saturday night I finished my first MIT course, and last Tuesday I was inches below the coping on a backside air on an 11 foot ramp. I’m writing this on day 3 of week 4, meaning that I have exhausted about 1/6th of the total time I have allotted for this project. While I’ve done a lot of math, physics, coding, skateboarding, and secret exercises, I have neglected writing about it. The goal of this project, and more specifically this blog, is not to rack up a list of achievements, but instead to document and study my learning process. This involves more than memorizing information and solving problems, but includes discussing: my motivation, how I grow, and change throughout the process. A big part of all this is how I feel along the way, a topic which is difficult to share publicly, but for the sake of transparency and artistic integrity I’m going to do my best with this post.
Before I began the project, while it was still in its planning phases, I was incredibly excited. I felt like, for the first time in a while, I was in charge of my own life, that I was really doing something I thought was cool and true to my interests. I thought I had no ulterior motives other than to turn my favorite activity, learning, into my craft, artisanal learning, something I was afraid I would have to wait until much later in life to have the time/money/support for. Instead of waiting for the right time, I just did it immediately since I was (and still am) trying to make some major changes in the way I live my life. Over the past six years I had become indoctrinated by the idea that delayed gratification leads to a better life. I worked hard on projects that I thought would lead to more independence, happiness, freedom, and fulfillment sometime in the future, but not necessarily throughout the project. Anyone who knows me well knows I am obsessive, and my obsessive nature allowed this idea to take control of my life. I started thinking 20 years ahead, doing what I thought would lead to the best returns down the road, and saving my enjoyment for then. After I graduated, I started realizing that it is almost impossible to plan ahead, since you don’t know or control how things will turn out nearly as much as you think you do.
When I graduated, triple majoring in 4 years, double valedictorian, accomplishing almost everything I thought I wanted to accomplish, I felt empty. The results meant nothing, but the journey, and how I felt along the way meant everything, since I had spent so much time inside of them. I started to question why I would want to go to graduate school just so someone could “let me” do scientific research, six years later, if everything worked out as I thought it would. Even if I was successful in this pursuit I would have to study something that was worthy of winning grants, and it would be unlikely that I would get to study exactly what I was interested in, when I was interested in it. This is especially true since I’m most interested in projects like this, which have yet to reveal what they are or what they will “result in”. More frightening than this was the idea that I would be pigeonholed; If at some point in the next 43 years if my interests changed I would have to start from scratch again.
I started to think about getting a “real job”. It was exciting, thinking about how I could make a significant income for a while to get my feet off the ground, and then at some point I would be able to start my learning projects, invent new technologies, and pursue creative projects I had always pushed to the end of my “to-do lists”. Instead of seriously pursing this I decided to bias my actions towards what I thought was the underlying lesson of my previous experience; that I should stop delaying the best parts of my life, and start living them now.
So I jumped in feet first, made this website, developed the project exactly the way I wanted to, not worrying or listening to outside feedback, or what I felt someone my age in my country “should be” doing instead. And it was liberating, I lost the gut wrenching feeling of living in the future, and hoping I’d have time to be myself someday, if I worked hard enough and everything fell in to place at the right time. I felt like I had something in common with all of the people I had looked up to, and my fear of never becoming Charlie evaporated. I was finally doing what I always hoped I had with my life, well just not yet, but the would be on Day One. The impossible goals felt impossible, my time manageable, and I thought I’d be in control and give it my best. Then I started.
Day One. The impossible goals still felt impossible, but my brain immediately tried to figure out how I was going to finish them. This turned into an incredible pressure, instead of having 5 fun benchmarks to measure my progress against, I had 5 impossible goals that I felt like I needed to accomplish at the end of the six months. I wanted to give the project my all, and turning these goals from the playful wishes they were into a do-or-die doctrine was my brain’s way of ensuring that I really pushed myself. This led to a lot of stress and overwhelm in the beginning. At first I was excited to be making progress so fast, then when things started working out differently than I had planned. When it took me days to complete a single programming problem, when I was rained out at the skatepark three days in a row after a week of not getting any closer towards doing a legitimate air out of the coping, and when I realized I haven’t finished a single one of my 26 courses of action, I became frustrated and hopeless. I thought I had designed a prison that was impossible for me to escape, and I was doomed to humiliation and failure when the clock hit week 26 day 7.
I was wrong. First of all, I designed this project and I was working on exactly what I wanted to work on and getting all the credit and upside for it, so it certainly wasn’t a prison. Secondly, I didn’t “need” to accomplish the impossible goals, in fact I didn’t even intend to accomplish them, I just wanted to try my best. So, backed into a corner, I changed my strategies and started figuring out how to learn faster, or at least give myself the option of doing so. Some new strategies worked, and others didn’t, and I realized that this was the point of the whole project and the super ambitious goals, to force myself to try things I would never have to on something that I felt comfortable completing. The wins and successes are always easy, but seeing every day, every problem set, every attempt at a new trick as a mini-experiment in a giant project has made the failures feel the way they should, like any other attempt, successful or unsuccessful. Failure is often more valuable than a successful attempt, since it is full of information about what isn’t working, and what not to repeat in the future, while sometimes you can get lucky using the wrong methods and label it “a win” (as I feel like I might have on some of my circuit problems). This new perspective has helped me emotionally detach from the negative results and allowed me to refocus on my effort, creativity, and ability to try things before I judge their effectiveness. The only truly disappointing result from the project would be feeling like I hadn’t experimented enough.
I want to express that this is not a minor part of my life, but this project feels like it is my life. It is my first priority, which would sound lame if it were a corporate job or research position, but when my life is skateboarding, learning, having more fun (secret course ???), and building things I want to build the way I want to build them, it feels pretty awesome. This project matters to me, a lot, I am putting most of my time towards it, enjoying the process, and not worrying about what it would feel like to finish and MIT CS education or land a 360, just enjoying how it feels to be me, now. In the theme of using failure as a means of gaining information I’m going to continue to enjoy the process, focus on what feels pure now, and live in the present now, and in the future when I’m on the brink of living for something I think I might want 20 years from now.
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